Living a Life of Art South of the Border
EyeSwoon’s Athena Calderone visits San Miguel de Allende and finds a rich cultural heritage that still influences the Mexican oasis today.
So how did the art and expat community flourish in San Miguel de Allende? Well, I’ll tell you, because in my humble opinion it is absolutely fascinating—and as relevant now as ever.
It all began with Peruvian painter and left-wing activist Felipe Cossío del Pomar, plus some good, old-fashioned publicity. While in exile from Peru, Felipe founded art school Bella Artes in San Miguel in 1938. After World War II, American GIs flocked to the school when they realized their educational grants could be stretched much further in Mexico than they could in the US. Then in 1947, Life magazine penned a doozy. “GI Paradise: Veterans go to Mexico to study art, live cheaply and have a good time,” the article said. Following Life’s piece, the real boom began! The story prompted more than 6,000 American veterans to relocate to the city, wooed by the promise of living large on very little.
Recently, I was personally moved by the documentary “Lost and Found” in San Miguel. The film focuses on stressed-out, ex-executive American expats who have crossed the border to live with less and find their hidden artist within. They give up their hectic schedules to live with people they admire, people who are more concerned with arts, culture, and crafting than emails and meetings. They find themselves by losing themselves in the streets of the city. Slow, intentional, creative living— it’s a modern-day fairy tale if I’ve ever heard one.
What’s more? From everything I witnessed in San Miguel de Allende, the reality really does live up to the fantasy. Art and craftsmanship are indeed woven into the fabric of the city. The sense of pride the locals exude when sharing their prized creative enclave with visitors is palpable. I keenly observed a woman making ceramics, and I happily went unnoticed, because she was so focused she didn’t look up once. I was mesmerized witnessing an older woman meticulously set up her loom. It can apparently take hours, even days, to untangle the yarns; the weaving is the easy part. The wooden looms looked so primitive and clunky. In America, they most certainly would have been replaced with factory machines by now.
And where outdated trades are phased out in the city, arts still spring up anew in their wake. The old turn-of-the-century textile factory Fabrica Aurora, which once offered jobs to a sizable swath of San Miguel de Allende residents, has been converted into a complex of antique shops, galleries, artist residences, and interior home stores. The outpost has transformed from a barren factory to a lively design center for artists and visitors alike.
Looking around me, I imagined living this kind of life—sitting in a courtyard strumming on a guitar…being so focused on delicately carving hair into a ceramic figurine that I didn’t notice someone photographing me. Taking the time, day in and day out, to hone my craft, with few distractions. There was a meditative flow within the walls of Bella Artes. As life gets more frenetic, more expensive, more cluttered, I can only see the seductiveness of San Miguel de Allende growing stronger. After all these years, it is still the city that intoxicates dreamers and creatives. It’s where people go to get grounded, wander, and create, lapping up the vibrant culture at every crimson turn. I’m back in Brooklyn now, but as my most valuable souvenir, I’m holding onto the smallest sliver of the sunny, mindful artisan outlook I picked up in San Miguel de Allende. —Athena Calderone
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